The Democrat majority in Michigan’s Senate and House is making quick progress on gun legislation, which is popularly supported by Michigan citizens. The House has already passed a bill supporting what amounts to universal background checks. Last week, a Senate committee debated the effectiveness of the proposed laws, but those laws will likely make it to the Senate floor quickly for two reasons: The Democrats have the votes and the public supports these laws.
A WDIV/Detroit News survey showed that 87.8% of Michigan citizens support background checks for gun buyers, including nearly 78% of Republican gun owners. What’s the argument against this legislation, which the citizens so strongly approve of? Well, it uses licensing as a way of ensuring background checks. It would exempt individuals who had a Federal National Instant Criminal Background Check in the last five days before the purchase. It is a tiny nit to pick, and unlikely to persuade.
More than 74% of those surveyed support extreme risk laws, or what is popularly referred to as “red flag laws.” This gives law enforcement the opportunity to temporarily confiscate the guns of individuals at risk of harming themselves or others. Suicide is the cause of 60% of gun deaths. A study by Political Science Professor John Tures of LaGrange College found that red flag laws in other states save more than 7,300 lives in 2020. It appears to be a promising approach that strikes a balance between safety and gun rights.
Another set of bills addresses safe storage. Four-fifths of those surveyed support this approach to gun safety. While Democrat support is higher, a majority of Republicans also support it, including Republican gun owners. Both parties support exempting gun safety items from sales tax.
Make no mistake, there is a serious gun problem in our country and no state is immune, as the Oxford High School and MSU shootings drove home. Particularly worrisome is a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that compared reasons for children’s deaths among “peer” countries, which included Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. We were the only country where guns were the leading cause of death. The closest behind was Canada, where guns deaths are fifth. When you look at the rate per thousand, the data is equally shocking: The U.S. rate is 5.6 per 100,000, while Canada’s is 0.8 per 100,000. That’s seven times as many deaths. The U.S. rate is 56 times higher than in Germany, Netherlands, the UK and Japan. One Republican legislator complained that this data included 19-year-olds, who are not children. A parent grieves no less at the death of a child when they turn 19.
There are other gun safety approaches that are supported by most Michigan citizens, including a 14-day waiting period to purchase, raising the purchase age to 21 and banning the creation of 3-D printed ghost guns. The Democratic majority made the prudent decision to lead with laws that are already on the books of other states and have broad support from both parties. They are becoming adept at finding that spot where good policy meets good politics.
Some Democrats were careful to say that these bills were not the ceiling of efforts to reduce gun violence in our state but a beginning that can be passed and supported by citizens of both parties. They could have included more controversial solutions but wisely decided to offer legislation long overdue that holds great promise. They may eventually reach further, but for the moment they are demonstrating that they will hold their new power with appropriate restraint.
Looming over all this is the question of whether these proposed solutions will be found constitutional by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Gun regulation was a non-controversial reality for most of American history. People could not carry guns inside the city limits of Dodge City, and in 1925 West Virginia banned machine guns. No one protested based on Second Amendment rights. It wasn’t until the Heller decision in 2008 that the Court ruled that the amendment guaranteed an individual’s right to own a gun. Previously, the Court held that the amendment should be interpreted as written, to protect the right of states to a regulated militia. Heller also states that the right to bear arms is not unlimited, including “prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” The modest laws being sent through Michigan’s Legislature seem to lie within what the court has defined as constitutional. It’s possible the court may change its approach to issues, but under the existing interpretation, they should pass muster.
It seems nearly certain that Michigan will soon have common-sense gun laws. It will be years before we know if they are effective, but for now, we will have met the moment that was thrust upon us in mid-February. We will say that we care about the safety of our citizens and that we respect the Constitution. It’s about time.
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